What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

3.4 Showing a good grasp of ideas

To show your grasp of the ideas you have been studying you have to express them for yourself, in your own words. Your tutor will certainly be looking out for signs that you understand the centrally important issues. For example, Philip showed that he understood the significance of Ellis's point about women's loss of a household management role. But he was very vague about the effects this had on women's lives in the countryside, which suggests he hadn't really sorted out that part of his argument. His tutor would see that he needs help with it. Your tutor has to be able to see your thought-processes at work in this way in order to give you the kind of advice and support that will help develop your understanding. So what you must avoid doing is using other people's words.


When you are writing an essay you are often working with ideas and terms you are not familiar with. This makes it difficult for you to produce a clear, coherent argument and you may become anxious about whether you will ‘get it right’. To be on the safe side, some students are tempted to ‘lift’ sections of words from textbooks and articles and put them in their essays without using quotation marks or acknowledging the source. In other words, they try to pass these words off as their own. This is known as ‘plagiarism’.

Tutors are usually very familiar with the difference between the way students write and the way experienced authors write, and soon notice when a student lurches between an ‘expert’ and a ‘beginner’ style. A particular giveaway is when most of the words are as in the original except for one or two (changed for purposes of camouflage), which stick out like sore thumbs because they are in a different style. Another is when smoothly flowing sections of writing are interspersed with short, inelegant linking phrases. It seems that most people write particularly badly when they are trying to stitch together someone else's words. Because you are not in control of ‘making’ the sense as you write, plagiarizing actually makes your writing worse.

This approach will not get you good marks. Indeed, when tutors spot what is going on (which is not difficult) they will tend to assume you understand very little and mark you down. Worse, you do not develop your own writing style. If you become locked into the sterile and tedious business of parroting other people's words rather than expressing thoughts for yourself, then you are likely to remain a beginner for a long time. And you will not learn much about the ideas in the course either.

There is only one way to learn to use ideas in writing and that is to practise expressing them in your own words. They may not come out very well to begin with but, like a learner in any field, you have to be prepared to make mistakes sometimes. It is through letting your weaknesses show that you learn how to do something about them, and allow others to help you learn.


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